In Zadie Smith’s novel NW, her two leading characters, Leah and Keisha — that latter of whom morphs into Natalie when she leaves her council estate and becomes a barrister — visit Our Lady of Willesden, the black Madonna in St Mary’s church on the corner of Neasden Lane and the High Road.
Willesden was once a place of pilgrimage until St Mary’s original black Madonna was taken to the Chelsea home of Henry VIII’s enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, and burned in a bonfire, along with other outlawed items of idolatry.
The current statue is the work of sculptor Catharni Stern and was installed in 1972, once again turning St Mary’s and Willesden into a place of pilgrimage.
Willesden Green is five miles north-west of central London and Smith would celebrate the fact that the focal point of its high street, along the High Road, is its brand-new library and museum, built after a fierce local planning battle, which is tacked on to the back of the original Edwardian library building.
The museum tells the story of how Willesden changed after the arrival of the Metropolitan line.
By the 1890s it was the fastest-growing district in London. Waves of immigration shaped the area’s history, so much so that by the mid-Sixties a fifth of its residents hailed from Ireland.
Visitors to the museum can learn how the Barham family started sending milk from Willesden’s dairy cows to central London by express train — calling the business Express Dairies — and how Titus Barham’s collections provided the foundation for the museum.
Willesden’s close neighbours are Neasden, Cricklewood and Hendon to the north; Kilburn and West Hampstead to the east; Queen’s Park and Kensal Green to the south; and Harlesden to the west.
Families make their way to Willesden Green’s large family houses in the Mapesbury Conservation Area and Brondesbury Park if they have been priced out of more expensive and fashionable Queen’s Park and Kensal Green.
Gladstone Village (020 8208 8355), off St Michael’s Road overlooking Gladstone Park, is a development of 34 (eight shared ownership) two-, three- and four-bedroom houses and one- and two-bedroom flats from housing association Octavia Living.
All the shared-ownership flats are sold and, in the current phases, four-bedroom houses start at £905,000 and two-bedroom flats at £555,000.
The development completes this summer. Springhill House (0800 201 4811) is a McCarthy & Stone development of 38 one- and two-bedroom flats for the over-sixties that is ready to move into.
Six flats remain, with one-bedroom flats starting at £399,950 and two-bedroom flats at £553,950.
Agent Stephen Boyd says Willesden Green used to be popular with Australian and South African backpackers, but many old-style landlords who rented by the room have sold up.
“The quality of rental homes is much higher and with the Jubilee line offering a quick service to the West End, the City and Canary Wharf, the area is now popular with young professional singles and couples.”
Anyone who has managed to buy a house in the Mapesbury Conservation Area will stay in the area.
NW11 is the Willesden postcode, although on its northern edge it strays into NW2 the postcode for Cricklewood.
Any of the roads in the Mapesbury Conservation Area, which is bounded on the west by Walm Lane and Chichele Road, on the south by the railway, on the east by the rear of houses in the Edgware Road and on the north by the rear of properties in Anson Road.
Stewart Boyd also likes the Victorian terrace houses near Willesden Green station, such as Melrose Avenue, Riffel Road, Chandos Road and Cranhurst Road.
Up and coming areas
The roads at the western end of the High Road are generally smaller and cheaper.
Willesden Green and Dollis Hill are on the Jubilee line; Brondesbury Park and Brondesbury are on the Overground with trains to Willesden Junction, Highbury & Islington and Dalston Junction.
With the exception of Dollis Hill, all the stations are in Zone 2 and an annual travelcard to Zone 1 costs £1,320; Dollis Hill is in Zone 3, for which an annual travelcard costs £1,548.
For many Londoners, Willesden still exists only as a bus destination, with four major bus routes terminating at Willesden bus garage: the 6 runs to Aldwych, the 52 to Victoria, the 98 to Russell Square and the 460 to North Finchley.
Brent (Labour-controlled); Band C council tax 2016/2017: £1,377.24.
Shops and restaurants
Willesden Green has a long shopping street along Walm Lane and High Road and there are shops in Church End, commonly called Church Road.
The local town team publish a map and directory of 70 recommended shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and traders. The library and museum are the high point, although at the Walm Lane end Boyd says the long-waited arrival of a coffee shop culture is appearing.
Beer + Burger is a new arrival with a monthly running club; Habaneros, serving burgers and piri piri chicken, is packed at lunchtime.
There is a large branch of Sainsbury’s. Other gems to look out for are long-established butcher O’Farrells and baker Edward’s Bakery, which opened in 1908; Willesden Salvage is a mad treasure house of unusual objects; Metro Textiles Corner has beautiful African fabrics; La Bottega di Anna is an Italian deli with a simple home-cooked lunchtime menu and locals rave about Sushi Masa.
The Queensbury is the local gastro pub opposite Willesden Green station. There are also Portuguese and Brazilian shops, cafes and bars for anyone searching for a pasteis de nata, the famous Portuguese custard tart. Stoake in Harlesden Road sells and installs wood-burning stoves.
Gladstone Park is named after the Liberal prime minister, Sir William Gladstone.
It is the largest park and has a children’s playground, a café, a walled flower garden and a Holocaust memorial. The Mapesbury Dell off Hoveden Road is an award-winning community garden maintained by volunteers.
Leisure and the arts
The Tricycle in Kilburn is a leading fringe theatre which also has a cinema. The Willesden Sports Centre in Donnington Road is the council-run swimming pool.
Schools are not Willesden’s strongest selling point. Only one state primary schools is judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted: the Convent of Jesus and Mary Catholic Infants in Park Avenue. The others — St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Juniors in Linacre Road; Donnington in Uffington Road; Anson in Anson Road; North West London Jewish Day School in Willesden Lane; Leopold in Hawkshead Road; Mora in Mora Road and Avigdor Hirsch Torah Temimah in Parkside, which only admits boys — are all judged to be “good”.
The two state comprehensive schools — Capital City Academy (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) in Doyle Gardens and Queen’s Park (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) in Aylestone Avenue – are both judged to be “good”. The nearest comprehensive to obtain an “outstanding” rating is St Augustine’s C of E (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) in Oxford Road in Kilburn.
The College of North West London in Dudden Hill Lane is the further education college; it is judged to be “good”. There are top private schools in nearby Hampstead and Highgate
Mulberry House (co-ed, ages two to seven) is a private infant school in Shoot Up Hill and Maple Walk (co-ed, ages three to 11) is a private primary school in Crownhill Road in Harlesden.